Sunday, October 19, 2008

Finding the right teacher.

This is one of the first articles I published on this site. It is still one of the most popular and the one I get the most comments about from friends and colleagues. English is not my first language, so I sometimes have a hard time with basic grammar and composition. A friend (name not mentioned until he says it's alright) offered to do some basic-copy editing on some of my writing, so as to help me improve gradually. Here is a new version of "Finding the right teacher" that won't make English majors want to claw their eyes out.

Assuming a piano student has support from his family and considers music a possible career, his teacher is probably the single greatest influence on his development. The wrong teacher can severely cripple a musician's future prospects.

A good teacher will develop the love for music in a child, and will prevent the formation of bad habits from the very beginning. He will help an older student make the difficult transition towards an increasingly professional musical sensibility. He will provide the foundation for a good, flexible technique and introduce the different elements of style and interpretation. The end result is an independent student who knows how to practice and solve problems, with the sufficient knowledge to correctly understand a score, including all the stylistic and emotional that are often in-between the lines. Furthermore, a great teacher will help a student understand and express his personality through his music. Unfortunately, without experience, it is quite hard to gauge the quality of teachers; bad teaching is often only apparent after the damage has already been done.

Parents looking for a teacher will tend to rely on superficial considerations, like how the teacher dresses, what rates he charges, and how smoothly he talks, without realizing that many so-called teachers out there prey on these tendencies like slick used-car salesmen. They butter up the parents with their oily talk, making up fake qualifications and exaggerating their praise for the little kids at every turn, all while the children develop an ever more deformed technique and an aversion to music.

Older students looking for a teacher tend to fall into the peer pressure trap. They go with the teacher that all their friends are studying with, usually being talked down to by the other students (and often ex-students turned into teachers) until they finally cave in and join the clique. Young teenage students tend to have big expectations, and many teachers out there will prey on that, promising them the world but failing to deliver. Even when all the students have obvious common flaws (all of them the result of bad teaching), the teacher will heap on the praise. At this stage, teenagers and young adults are usually afraid to acknowledge a wrong decision (especially in conflict with the rest of the group), so they tend to idolize their teacher. The bad teacher will take advantage of that and go as far as to call other teachers complete garbage. Outside opinion is this teacher's enemy, and he will try to isolate the students from other musicians. The only yardstick the students have left to measure their progress is their teacher's opinion and their peers' progress. They are good because teacher said so, all objectivity lost in the constant reinforcement from their friends.

In order to find the right teacher, you have to examine the short- and long-term goals you want to meet at different points in your development. Understand what kind of teacher you need, and find the very best teacher for that level in your area.

In a child's case, motivation is crucial. When working with young children, the best teachers are those who manage to keep the child motivated, and prevent the child from acquiring bad habits.

You want a teacher with whom the kids are obviously having fun. A good teacher at this level leads to children eager to play their instrument, or more accurately play with their instrument. It's fun, not work. The teacher will keep the kids active and entertained-clapping, singing, and sometimes even coloring and playing games. But if that were the only necessary qualification, then any competent babysitter would be a great music teacher for children; a teacher who works with children should also have a complete practical knowledge of technique. Musicians who are great at playing their instruments, but who can't really explain how they do it, have no business teaching children how to play. A teacher at this level must be able to show a student how to hold and play the instrument, identify and correct bad habits, and explain to the student's parents clearly what to look for so that they can supervise their kid's practice time.

A sense of structure is important at this level. Students are motivated by recognizing their advancement through the ranks. We all remember looking with awe at the very last pieces in our beginner's books, full of strange symbols and notes way out of the range we were playing at the time. Having an outside source (a book, a website or even a guest teacher) to further clarify what the teacher is doing is also helpful. A clear lesson plan for each student is very important; unlike later in a musician's development, at this stage it is desirable for all students to follow the same road. They love to compare themselves to the other kids, and it gives their parents a clear idea of their progress.

At this level, the teacher should assign the student enough short easy pieces to avoid boredom, teaching the basics of sight-reading and music theory, and keeping the child eager for his next lesson. Music ideally should be a sort of game in which the child, the teacher, and the parents are all involved to some extent. There is no room for yelling and screaming from the teacher; if he loses his patience easily, he should not be working with children.

Warning signs at this level are: the child not wanting to take lessons anymore (which happens to all of us occasionally, but if the disinterest lasts too long, it's probably the teacher's fault) and unnatural playing. If a child complains of back, neck or tendon pains, there is something seriously wrong. In the case of the piano, playing with flat or excessively curved fingers, locked elbows or wrists, a hunched back, or hard, inflexible joints are all signs of deficient teaching.

Most importantly, remember that whatever the student's level, the musical result has to be as good as possible. Even if the child is playing very easy pieces, he should exhibit a steady rhythm, a good sound, intonation, and some elements of style. A lack of these is also a sign of a lazy or indifferent teacher.

Eventually it will be time to get a teacher more suited for an intermediate level; even some professionals are plagued by having switched too late. Remember the basics of teaching a child: motivation and the bases for good technique. If the kid's motivation is so strong that he wants to be a musician when he grows up, then he should switch to a more advanced teacher sooner rather than later.

Up until this point, music has essentially been a game. Now it's time to start "training," as if for a sport, and heading down the road towards being a professional. An intermediate teacher will challenge you, urging you to give the most you can. During this period, a musician needs a teacher he can respect. Teachers at this point come in all flavors: the crazy, screaming teachers who bang on the piano with their fists when they don't get their way, the motherly ones that will make you want to cry with just a sad look each time things don't work, maybe the friendly ones who will just shrug and kick you out. What you want at this point is someone who will nitpick at evert aspect of your playing and give you repertoire that will push you to your limits, but who has the knowledge necessary to show you how to exceed those limits.

He should push you to work as quickly and accurately as you can, always demanding perfection (even if what you are playing is something basic, like a Clementi sonatina). He has to cover all the bases-technique, interpretation and style.

A bad teacher at this point can do more damage than a buffalo in a china shop.

Recognizing a bad teacher at this stage is very important. Remember, you are looking to find the very best teacher you possible can within your area. Traveling is usually not ideal; there are bad teachers everywhere, and you could end up with one of them regardless of where you're looking.

The best way to judge a teacher is to analyze his students. Don't necessarily look for teachers with students who play very well; many teachers will just showcase a couple of really good students, usually self-made or the product of another teacher's work, while trying to hide the rest of them from view. Instead, judge a teacher by the majority or average of his students.

All teachers get one or two really bad students a year (whom they'll quickly get rid of), just as all teachers occasionally get a young talent. The rest of the students are the ones you need to be looking at. How do they measure up against the other teachers' average students? What level of repertoire do they play? What kind of progress have they made in the past year or so? How do his students perform at master classes? How do they do in competitions? Have any of them progressed to study at a higher level? Most importantly, is there some shared flaw between them?

If all the students have some kind of bad habit-raising their shoulders, clenching their jaws, playing out of tune or out of style-then these habits are probably the teacher's fault. Have they all suffered the same kind of music-related injury? If many of the students have had carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis at some point, then there might be a problem with the teacher. If the teacher says it's the weather's fault, or the students' fault for over-practicing in all those cases, then you can bet that he is definitely the cause of the problem.

Analyze your lessons. How much of your lesson do you spend just playing the piece over and over again? How much of your lesson does your teacher spend giving you information and criticism, and how much does he spend just complaining, wasting time and repeating himself? After the lesson, sit down and write down what you learned. Or, even better, record the lesson. Are you getting information from your teacher? Is he helping you solve your problems, or just yelling at you for having them? Have you had all your lessons?

Analyze his lesson plans. Are all of the students playing the same programme over time, or are the pieces individually tailored to match each student's needs? Unlike with children, having students play the same repertoire just denotes laziness or a lack of knowledge on the teacher's part. Look around, read some books, look at some websites, or attend some masterclasses. Is your teacher neglecting something essential? Is he flat-out telling you things that most people consider wrong? Can he play, or did he play once? Does he apply the things he teaches to his own playing? Is he teaching you one thing, but doing completely the opposite when he plays? Does it matter to him that you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it? When you ask him that, does he give you a straight answer?

Repertoire is also a big deal. Make sure that you understand the reason behind everything you play. Each new piece you play should help you improve or teach you about different styles and composers. Make sure that your teacher is assigning you music that is right for your level. Some teachers constantly make their students play things that are much too difficult to make themselves look good, so that they can make more money. This usually leads to the deterioration of a student's technique and quality of playing. At some point, the student will either get injured or find himself much worse off than when he started. Then those teachers will blame the student for everything and discard him. They'll get a bunch of naive young musicians and start the process again. Other teachers just make all their students play the same thing, because that's all they were taught and they're too lazy to do anything but repeat what they once heard from someone else.

Remember, the goal here is to get the student to teach himself. Progress is measured not only in technical achievements and difficulty of repertoire, but especially in independence. Being able to work out things for yourself; understanding how to fix problems, and having a big toolbox full of solutions for all the situations that might arise is what is most important. Independence ensures that you can continue to get better even if the teacher is not there.

Once students have reached this level of independence, it is time for an advanced teacher. A teacher at this level is your colleague (though a colleague with a much vaster experience than your own). A teacher at this point is more of a guide or an example than a trainer; someone who is actively playing or who has had a lot of experience forming good musicians is ideal.

From the moment a student starts with an intermediate teacher, he will be doing the bulk of the work. Teacher and student will build up the pieces together; the student working while the teacher pushes him. In a more advanced teaching relationship, the student will have done all the work and will ideally have the piece ready to play at his lessons. These lessons will focus more on interpretation; many times the student might disagree with the teacher, but the point of this level of development is contrasting different points of view to make your playing richer.

At this point in a student's development, the quality of teachers should be more obvious. The teacher's qualifications should be your most important consideration. Getting into a big-name school or "going to Europe" does not guarantee a good teacher at all.

Making sure that you have the ideal teacher for your level is essential. An intermediate-level teacher working with a child will discourage him and probably lead to bad habits. An advanced-level teacher is often useless at an intermediate or child's level, when a much more specific criticism or method is preferred, usually dealing with concepts too far advanced to be useful at that stage in a musician's development.

More than anything else, make sure that whatever you are playing-at whatever level you're playing it-is the very best you can do. You are your own teacher, and responsible for your own progress. You should read and listen to music, and attend conferences, masterclasses, and concerts. If you are stuck with a bad teacher and doing nothing about it, then it's your own damn fault.


  1. Great article! I really liked your point on outside opinions tending to be a teacher's enemy. I have seen it first had myself, ironically that same teacher said that nobody should make a judgment of him teaching unless they have had lessons from him.

    Thanks for posting such a strong statement, its the one thing I read this week that was refreshing. You have some powerful expressions.

    From reading your articles I wouldn't have picked up that English is your second language, you write with such eloquence and fluency! Thank you for supplying such articles daily.

  2. Dear Ahmed,

    I must be a minority because i even try to keep 'bad' students (the ones that don't practice much) because i have the hope that someday soon they will have more time - drop a sport - and put in a little more practice time. However, for the sake of the parents - i do mention that i think they need to up the practice time or they may be wasting money.

    Appreciated your article - and find that it all boils down to simplicity. Don't look for slick oily teachers. Look for the guy or girl that is sort of messed up. You know, the real REAL thing isn't always organized totally. And, may not even demand perfection from the first Clementi sontata. Maybe it's only two or three things that are honed to perfection. But, more and more things can be added. You know - like 'line upon line, precept upon precept.' That's my motto. If you give it all at once- the student might fall over from exhaustion and exasperation from not getting it all right - and if they are only six years old - who cares! But, there are some twelve year olds that are very mature and can handle what you would tell an adult. These are rare - but nice! Susan Look for wandering eyes. Stop the lesson or do something different.

  3. PS Clementi isn't my first choice of repertoire. It's sort of Suzuki fodder.

  4. I'm just curious ... you mention three different types of teachers ... beginner teachers, intermediate and advanced. From my understanding as a student if a teacher is effective enough to teach up to an advanced level is there a real need to 'upgrade' if a teacher teaches the three: beginners, intermediate and advanced students?

  5. There are some highly gifted teachers out there that can switch gears effectively and teach all kinds of students, including other kinds, like adult beginners or the like. I was aiming this article mostly at pianists training for a professional career. At that level, there is quite a different definition for an "advanced" student, not to be confused with an intermediate student who is just playing difficult repertoire; and not many teachers who regularly work with children or beginners can handle them. But, there are some rare cases of excellent teachers who do all three well.

    In any case, I believe it is best to change teachers after a while. I lasted with each of my teachers for exactly three years, and while I was studying with my very last teacher I was simultaneously taking lessons with several other pianists. Some people studied with the same teacher their whole lives and it worked for them, though so I guess it's different for everyone.